Brock biologist aims to help women achieve equality in traditionally ‘male’ fields

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Brock biologist aims to help women achieve equality in traditionally ‘male’ fields

Published on June 06 2014

Article from the Brock News

A group of science students head to the pub to discuss their research project - without their female members present. A male researcher offers to “help” his female colleague, since he has “more” experience and expertise than her, although she has been working in the same field longer.

Male tradespeople laugh, and poke fun at their female colleagues.

Discrimination against women in traditionally “male” fields - sciences, engineering, technology, trades - ranges from the subtle to the blatant, but all have the effect of keeping women out, explains Brock biologist Liette Vasseur.

“In many of these fields, women are still very rare,” she says. “In fact, the numbers are going down in some fields, not up. It’s not changing too much from before.”

Vasseur is the newly elected president of the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology (CCWESTT).

The Mississauga-based group is a resource and support network that researches, promotes and advocates for the full participation of women in science, engineering, trades and technology in government, business, industry and education at all levels.

Vasseur explains that there are about as many women as men represented at the BSc level. Women start dropping off at the Master’s level and continue to do so at the PhD and Post-Doctoral levels.

“When you look at full professorship - even in biology and some life sciences - you have around 20 or 25 per cent women and 75 per cent men,” she says. “Science is still very much a male-dominated area,” says Vasseur, referring to a presentation by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) at the recent CCWESTT conference.

The situation is even grimmer in the some workplaces, particularly in computing sciences and physics, says Vasseur. NSERC reports that women’s participation in these and other areas can be as low as nine per cent.

Workplace stress, family obligations and discrimination are the most common reasons why many women do not continue with science careers, she says.

Vasseur explains that workplace discrimination can take many forms. She says a common one is a complaint that women scientists do not produce “enough,” even in cases where they have accomplished more than male colleagues.

There may even be shortcomings in physical infrastructure. “A simple thing: the bathroom. Seems easy, but bathrooms are quite a difficult topic in trades - in many places such as the shop floor they simply don’t have a women’s washroom,” she says.

The Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology, which Vasseur now heads, had created a subgroup called the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology, or “WinSETT.”

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Liette Vasseur is a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, a Member of the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, and an Associate Faculty of the Women and Gender Studies program at Brock.